It was easy to lose track of all of the new players that the Padres acquired during a whirlwind offseason, a team coming off its first playoff appearance since 2006. While names such as Blake Snell, Mark Melancon, and Yu Darvish were the major acquisitions, Joe Musgrove was able to fly under the radar. Then Musgrove did what no other Padres pitcher did and threw the first no-hitter in the 52-year history of the franchise. It was this performance that grabbed the attention of the baseball world and allowed Musgrove to show off the changes he had slowly been making since his tenure with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Padres’ pitching staff as a whole has the lowest ERA in the MLB and the 4th lowest starter ERA, thanks in part to Musgrove’s performance this year. How did this change happen?
Musgrove was hinting at a potential breakout in 2019 with Pittsburgh when over his last five starts, he had a 2.89 ERA with a 28.1% strikeout rate and .642 OPS, which compares favorably to the 4.74 ERA with a 20.7% strikeout rate and .756 OPS he had in his first 27 games of the year (26 starts). Musgrove changed his delivery over his last five starts in 2019 in order to hide the ball better from hitters with less arm action. Musgrove promptly saw an uptick in velocity for his fastball, slider, cutter, curveball, and changeup, with a higher propensity to strike out batters, as his strikeout rate increased when he threw his fastball, curveball, and slider. The batted ball numbers also support this semi-breakout, as his hard-hit rate decreased from 37.8% in his first 27 games to 33.3% in his last 5 starts. Musgrove was also able to induce more soft contact as in the same time frame, his soft-hit rate increased from 18.5% to 21.3%. The exit velocity and launch angle would also decrease in this period, going from an exit velocity of 89.1 mph and launch angle of 12.4 degrees to 87.9 mph and 7.6 degrees. Finally, Musgrove saw a decrease in his FIP and SIERA, going from 4.08 and 4.48 on the season to 3.82 and 4.31, respectively, with a FIP and SIERA of 2.50 and 3.44 in his last five starts.
Musgrove continued his late success from 2019 into the 2020 season despite playing on a Pirates team that would finish at the bottom of the standings. While Musgrove struggled early on in the season, he was able to finish on a strong note once again, finishing the month of September with an ERA of 2.16 and FIP of 1.39. The primary reason Musgrove was pitching on an elite level to end the season was an increase of sliders and curveballs thrown. In the 2020 season, only 13 pitches had swing and miss rates above 50% from starters that caused 25 swings, with both Musgrove’s slider and curveball on the list. The only other pitcher with multiple pitches that caused that many swings and misses was the AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber. The strikeout rate for Musgrove’s slider was 54.9% and 59.1% for his curveball, and the weighted on-base average (wOBA) when he threw the same pitches was .257 and .105, respectively. However, those two pitches were only Musgrove’s secondary pitches, with his primary pitch being his fastball. Despite it being his primary pitch, Musgrove’s fastball induced a strikeout rate of only 14% with a wOBA of .437, which was a primary reason for his struggles early on.
After being traded to the Padres in the offseason, Musgrove continued to evolve as a pitcher, and his 2021 season to this point has cemented himself as one of the breakout players of the year. A major reason for Musgrove’s success this year is a higher dependence on his slider and curveball and less on his fastball. Entering May 10, Musgrove has only thrown his fastball at a career-low rate of 20%, nearly half his previous career low of 39.1% the year before. The slider, meanwhile, has been thrown 30.2% of the time, with a 50.9% strikeout rate and 0.125 wOBA, and the curveball has been thrown 18.6% of the time, with a 40% strikeout rate and .163 wOBA. So far this season, Musgrove has had two games where 10 or more batters struck out, and none of those strikeouts came on his fastball, but rather on his slider and curveball. When he struck out 13 Brewers in his outing on April 19, Musgrove became only the 7th pitcher to have 13+ strikeouts with none of them coming on fastballs in the pitch-tacking era (since 2008). As a result, Musgrove is a part of a rotation with the lowest ERA in the majors and the 4th-lowest starter ERA in the National League, with Musgrove sporting a 3.00 ERA and 3.18 FIP, along with throwing the first no-hitter in franchise history. Musgrove has fully broken out with the Padres this season, capitalizing on the talent that he had displayed at times in 2019 and 2020, and it’s due to a higher reliance on his slider and curveball, and a lower reliance on his fastball.
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